Thomas S. Hart Middle School
Here is where you learn to use a dial lock for the first time—a shiny metallic toy in twelve-year-old hands, swerving numbers, left, right, right, right some more—perfect.
Here you also learn what gifted really means—not that GATE shit from third grade you actually failed because your teacher thought you were mute and illiterate.Between brick buildings the color of dried blood, you carry the weight of two math textbooks instead of one. You learn the quadratic formula and soh-cah-toa and four years of math in two. Your Math 8/Algebra I teacher makes you use hand sanitizer every day because she’s afraid of germs.
You’re afraid of failing. You don’t know how or when it started, but it has its hands around you. You learn the perpetual fog of sleep deprivation and the impossibility of all-nighters. You never fully understand ancient Judaism, but you stay up past midnight anyway to finish a research project in the form of a coloring book. Your mother hears you at 2 a.m. and yells at you for still being awake. You learn that crayon wax is waterproof when your tears stain blue construction paper—but not hand-drawn Abraham. You learn five fewer hours of sleep are worth five extra credit points and you decide that’s a worthy exchange. You learn that teachers like you more when you go above and beyond.You learn to be a star student, best in the class. But “star student” is incompatible with sleep, so you learn to sacrifice. You learn about hunger, of the unending gnawing of expectation inside you.
Thomas S. Hart Middle School, Administrative Office
Here is where you learn the exact shade of an incident report form—not exactly pineapple yellow, but somewhere between the color of Spongebob and pale shortbread cookies. You learn to call it jaundice, like something sickly. Here, you learn about power, about the silence of your voice and the worth of aman’s. You learn about your body and what it can do for boys.
Here, you are twelve years old, but remember, you look like you’re nine.
Here is where you learn to expand your vocabulary. Being a woman means carrying a dictionary of short stinging words. You learn the meaning of slut and whore—but not c**t, that comes later—as you sit in the too-cold office with the Vice Principal. You, with your rigid spine, are swallowed by the bulging leather chair, feet dangling above the kaleidoscopic carpet of clashing colors.
You learn that middle-aged men can act like middle school boys and nobody bats an eye. Here is where you learn to be called little girl by men with too much authority to use the words little girl. You learn to wonder how little girl amounts to slut.
Raley’s Grocery Store
Under the fluorescent lights of aisle seven, you learn your mother is a misogynist.Hand wrapped around a soup can, she jokes that “boys will be boys.” You try to see the humor. Chew it, swallow it, digest it as a laugh. It’ll taste better that way, less like violation, more like validation. You learn that chicken noodle is still more appealing than clam chowder, even when life cannot be less appealing.
Remember, you can’t choose what happens to you, but at least you can choose chicken noodle over clam chowder.
Tiffany’s Dance Academy
White scuffs on black marley floors mark years of your life, and walls of mirrors watch you grow. Here is where you learn to plié, passé, pirouette, to train for twenty hours a week because you never outgrow your dream of being Clara. Later, you learn to sew a pair of pointe shoes, the satisfying feel of satin that shines under studio lights, and the futility of ribbons, sewn on for show.
Here is where you learn to be thin, to suck in belly button to spine, to watch yourself warp in the mirror until you no longer recognize yourself. Here is where you learn to count calories like eight-counts in a barre exercise. You learn to fat-check yourself every morning and night and afternoon. You learn about intermittent fasting. You learn to lie to yourself. You learn you can ignore hunger until noon and to salivate over skeletons until then. You learn that thinness means lightheadedness, purple nails in 70-degree weather, bruises like tattoos, falling hair, fatigue, and flus even in summertime. You learn you are symptoms, a stereotype, a silent starving body that nobody notices.
Foothill High School
Here is where you learn that feminist English teachers mean well. You learn about the power of feminist English teachers’ validation in classrooms where literary quotes cover the room’s beige base coat. Here, you read Shakespeare for the first time, hands curled in apprehension over the book’s glossy cover, corners rounded from years of other students’ reading and rereading and analyzing and essay writing. You learn to stumble over lines of verse and old English and, sometimes, to let the intricacies of language fly over your head. You learn to practice lines at home before reciting them in class.
You never unlearn your fear of failure. Expectation grows hungrier with time. At fourteen, you relearn the words patriarchy and misogyny. You wonder how those could ever be extrapolated from Shakespeare. Your English teacher saysDesdemona deserved better. She makes you recite Cassio’s lines though you yearn for Desdemona’s. You wonder if reading a man’s lines makes you more powerful, or if reading Desdemona’s makes you weaker.
You learn that starving and studying feel like the same sacrifice, so you spend weekends studying. You fill pages with notes and annotate until technicolor takes hold of the once-white page. You learn enough is never enough.
On weekends, you learn to flirt with boys. You learn to wear make-up and to shrink yourself in their presence. Just one boy’s attention is all you need. You learn to text him in between scenes of plays and Algebra II problem sets. You learn to love him. You learn to be grateful for any boy who doesn’t end in an incident report form. You learn that you like it when boys don’t call you little girl or slut or anything but your name. You don’t learn to set your standards higher. You mistake lust for love and attention for attraction.
You learn that like starving and studying, love is a sort of sacrifice, too. LikeDesdemona, you lay down your body before a boy. You learn that intellect is useless, that your body is your only power.
You learn to talk about sex for the first time. You learn to walk the thin line between prude and seeming aware enough of various acts to be interesting. You learn to agree to moves you never wanted—sometimes in the spontaneity of night, and others, over months and months of nagging. You learn that the breakdown of self-respect does not have a taste, but rather, a distinct feeling of validation followed by fear.
You learn to ignore the sting of your own hypocrisy. You learn to love a boy whose presence means the absence of your knowledge that you are nothing but a sex object. Then, you learn to only take his love in the form of awareness that you are his sex object. You learn to want it, to hate it, but to expect it nonetheless. You learn to make yourself weak for him. You learn you were born and raised for him alone—not him exactly, but any boy like him who notices you enough to make you feel wanted.You learn to crave his attention like it is your job, like your existence as a girl revolves around this boy who could be any boy.
So when young love inevitably comes to an end, you learn to be broken and then relieved. You learn that, maybe, love shouldn’t feel like this—that just maybe, your English teacher was right.
Foothill High School, Small Gym
In the small gym of your high school, you learn about the sport of the arts. Color guard. Guard for short. Here, between the walls of maroon carpet, you learn to drop spin, to double time, to backhand, to toss, to flourish, to fight hard for something you want. You learn you’ve never wanted anything this much in your entire life.
For the first time since you can remember, you learn to fail at something without calling it failure. You are surprised when failure isn't an end, but a humble beginning of hard work. You learn that sacrifice does not always mean shrinking yourself. Instead, sacrifice becomes the fire of aching muscles. It means concern for your own success and for that of a team.
You learn to fail, then fumble, then catch, and then to catch hard, harder than you’ve ever caught anything in your entire life. You learn to be good, to meet the demands of the weapon line, to be a soloist. You learn euphoria and bliss.You learn that training and tossing for twenty hours a week cannot be sustained on scraps of fruit and jasmine green tea alone, so you let go of numbers, of calories, fear foods, and then, slowly, fear itself. You learn to call this home.
You learn about queerness. You learn that non-cis, non-straight people exist, that the binary is constructed, that queer people are the backbone of the activity you’ve come to love. You learn that there’s little difference between them and you, or anybody else, except that they dress better, toss higher, catch harder.Slowly, you unlearn everything your parents have been telling you since you were a child. You learn to listen to Troye Sivan and Girl in Red, and you learn that one is inexplicably good and the other inexplicably bad.
Then, in the parking lot of your marching band’s last competition of the season, between sips of Cup ‘O Noodles, a teammate asks you if you’ve read the Lesbian Masterdoc. You say no. She says you should read it, that it would explain a lot. So you pull it up on your 4-year-old phone. You complain that it’s thirty pages long. She tells you to read it, so you read it anyway. Five pages in, things fall into place. You find answers for some of the questions you’ve been asking yourself for years.
On the bus ride home and in the months after, you learn to deconstruct the lies of your life, the single storyline of boy and girl. At sixteen, you learn what compulsory and heterosexuality mean together.You learn that perhaps you can feel something in the absence of a man. You learn that you like your best friend a lot more than you ever thought possible, or ever wanted to admit to yourself. You find a label that fits. For the first time, love and attraction begin to make sense.
You leave that competition without having dropped once and with the knowledge that you are a lesbian. Maybe, you’ve always known this, but this time, you’ve found the words to say it.
Foothill High School, Large Gym
You learn pain. You encounter abrasions at the electrical-taped blades of sabres and their scratched-up handles that leave slits on your forearms. You learn of flagpoles crashing into heads, backs, and knees and the bruises they eventually leave for finding like Easter eggs in May. You learn all the ways fingers can get hurt: jammed, sprained, bloodied. But you learn to invest in Bruise-Be-Gone and bandaids and Ibuprofen for when the pain becomes too much.
Then, you learn when the pain is too much. You learn of something stinging, small but fiery at first in your wrists in February of freshman year. You learn to push through because you tell yourself that sacrifice requires pushing through pain.You learn to ignore, to deny, to hide it as the pain works up your arms and down your fingers. But you don’t quit yet because captains are bound to their teams, and you tell yourself that everything works out if you work hard enough.
You learn, two years later, that you can no longer hide it. You learn to type essays and to open doors with elbows because you cannot hold pencils or open doors or brush your teeth or eat with forks without the pain taking hold of you—not just your wrists but your entire body.
You learn to use braces and CBD oil. Meals become incomplete without anti-inflammatories three times a day. You learn to survive on the cool numbing sensation of ice packs between rehearsals, then during rehearsals, then inEnglish class when you must write an essay by hand.
You learn tendinitis is a point of no return. You must learn to leave it all behind.
You learn that the word injury tastes like failure, like salty tears and grape-flavored ibuprofen—the children’s kind because you never learned to swallow pills. You learn that there are two types of failure in the world of marching arts: the ones you can recover from, and the ones you can’t. You relearn that failure is fatal—killed careers, unattended auditions, unsigned contracts, unperformed shows, unworn uniforms, unheard show music, unmade friends, untossed tosses, unfulfilled dreams.
For the first time in your life, you learn to quit. Not mid-season like an inconsiderate asshole, but quietly, after you soak in the show music through gym speakers and applause for the last time. You learned from guard that you should take care of yourself, even if you didn’t adequately do it for a while.You learn that to take care of your body, you need to leave—the sport, the art, the activity, the dance career you sacrificed for the activity, the late-night rehearsals, the football fields, the high school gyms, the weekend competitions, the senior recognition, the unwritten shows, the uniforms, the team, the staff, the home. All of it.
From the bleachers, you learn to watch your friends march drum corps in the summer and winter guard in the winter, and somehow, you learn to be happy for them though it eats you alive.
Valley Trails Park
Here is where you learn to metaphorically put one foot in front of the other again under a skimpy canopy of oak, crabapple, American hornbeam, and other suburban trees. Here you learn to walk for your sanity, once, twice, or even three times a day. The weather doesn’t matter. You learn to walk in the winter and in the inhumane heat of an East Bay summer.
You get to know the neighborhood dogs by their quirks: pinecone dog, leg brace dog, and the dog who tried to pee on your dog three years ago. You learn that peedog’s owner passed away last year, so you try to think kind thoughts about the dog who is left to live on. You learn how to approach the squirrels without scaring them away, and soon, you become their personal paparazzi. You learn to notice the park’s quirks, too, like how on Sundays, there are bagels nailed to every tree past the playground.
You learn to drown out your thoughts while walking with your Spotify playlists.Sometimes, when you’re feeling especially lonely or homesick, nostalgic or reminiscent, you listen to the show music from the winter of your freshman and sophomore years. You learn that listening to music from your junior year is too painful, so you don’t. Sometimes, you can’t help but relive your glory days.Sometimes, you do run-throughs of shows in your head. You imagine the choreography, the drill, the sequenced uniforms, gym lights, the shitty acoustics that made the music echo off the walls, and the silence of the audience before the roar of applause and exhaustion shooting through your body at once. You learn to remember these runs not as they were but in an idealized sense—perfect releases, perfect catches, perfect timing, painless.
You learn to allow yourself to do that only once or twice a year. You learn to distance yourself from the girl on that floor, the soloist, the weapon line.Mostly, you learn to listen to music from before—Lana Del Rey and ArcticMonkeys and whatever else makes you forget.
Still, you learn to listen to new music, to taste the flavors of fresh, unknown sounds—Stromae, Leith Ross, Milky Chance, Faye.
You learn that both memory and moving forward are a choice.
Pleasanton Public Library
Here is where you learn to drive yourself, hands too tightly gripping the steering wheel, barely cruising twenty miles per hour, but that still feels too fast.You learn that driving is hard, much harder than color guard or Honors English or thinking fondly of the dog who tried to pee on yours. Sometimes, you think you don’t have the capacity to learn new things anymore. You learn to forgive yourself when nobody else does, for the inability to try, to fail, to learn.
At seventeen, you learn comfort in sitting across from an empty table in your public library’s fiction section. You learn to find the best spots, so you sit in the back, in a corner nestled between the manga section and the window. You learn to ignore the judgment of the laptop screen staring back—not a blank document, but something started, something in the process of becoming whatever it shall become. You raise your hands, hover them over the keyboard, and begin.
Here, in this library, you learn to write—not the craft or emotional capacity or intellectual process, but the physical action of putting words to page, fingers to keyboard, to make your existence known. This is not the first time you tried, or the second or tenth, but here is where you learn to fully liberate yourself through words.
Here, in this building of dust and books, of tears and dreams, of fragments of incoherent dialogue and screams of children, you learn to care a little less.
Naomi Carr is a high school senior from California. She is an alumna of the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and an incoming 2023 Adroit mentee. Naomi has found a home in creative nonfiction although she dabbles in poetry. A two-time National Scholastic Gold Medalist, her work has been recognized by Susquehanna University, Ringling College of Art and Design, Columbia College Chicago, and the Bay Area Creative Foundation, among others. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Vagabond City Lit, Sepia, National Poetry Quarterly, Lumiere Review, and more. When she isn’t writing, Naomi enjoys finding inspiration in visual art, music, and her friends.
"School gym" by PhotogragherGirl is licensed under CC BY 2.0.